Air Force 75th Anniversary: The World War II Era

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter Napier III, 514th Air Mobility Wing historian
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Following the Great War of 1914-1918, there had been hope that it truly had been the “war to end all wars.” With over twelve million military dead, more than double that number wounded, and untold numbers of civilian casualties, the world hoped that the Treaty of Versailles (1919) may be the end of hostilities forever.[1] By the 1930s, however, Versailles had proven to be more curse than blessing.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party came to power in Germany promising to repeal the treaty.  He partnered with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government that felt Italy’s contributions in World War I had been overlooked by their allies. Japan, similar to Italy, felt that after siding with the allies during the Great War, they had been snubbed in the post-war spoils.

            While many trace the start of World War II to the Nazi invasion of Poland, the first shots were actually fired in East Asia.  On July 7, 1937, an incident on the Marco Polo Bridge near Wanping, China created the excuse for the Japanese to expand military action in China into a full blown war.[2]  A little more than two years later, during the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland.[3] On September 3, the British and French responded by declaring war on Germany.[4]  From there, the dominoes fell rapidly.  Russia followed Germany into Poland, and then attacked Finland during the Winter War in November 1939.[5]  After the fall of Poland, Germany expanded into Scandinavia, followed by the lightning quick conquest of France in 1940.[6]

            While the fires of war raged in the old world, the US took up a position of British leaning neutrality.  After a brutal decade of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) recognized he could not sell joining the war to the American people.  Like the belligerent nations in Asia and Europe, many Americans also felt their contributions during the Great War had not been fully appreciated.  But FDR also knew there could be no avoiding war in the long term, and he did not want to repeat the mistakes made by the US during the Great War. Despite declaring war in April 1917, it took more than a year to train, assemble, and transport troops to France.  The US did not fully commit their troops until the late spring of 1918, during the final German offensive.[7]  To avoid a similar delay, FDR began requesting additional funding from congress to expand American military forces, and one of his primary targets was to expand the Army Air Corps.

            While air power had first been used during World War I, the tradition of a small military had hurt a cost heavy and technologically driven field like aviation.  FDR, however, paid attention to his advisor Harry Hopkins who told him that if the US joined a European war, “airpower would win it.”[8] In April of 1939, Congress granted $300 million (approximately $6.4 billion in 2022) in funding to expand the US air forces.[9]  Following the invasion of Poland, the air forces would expand even quicker than expected.  In 1939, the U.S. Army had 26,500 men and 2,200 aircraft, by the end of the war in 1945, the air force manpower had reached 2,253,000 (approximately 31% of the Army’s total numbers) and 63,715 aircraft.[10]

            Pilots were among the first Americans to take part in World War II, although they were actually flying under a different flag.  Claire Chennault, a former soldier and pilot, retired from the military in 1937 and took up a position for the Chinese government as an analyst for their budding air force.[11] The Chinese trusted Chennault’s guidance, and he continued to build a relationship with them as the war with Japan heated up.  In 1941, Chennault was able to convince the US military to allow a small group of fighter pilots to resign from the US military to join the war in China.  These men would become known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG).

The AVG would only be active from 1941-1942, and all Chennault could offer was $750 a month, $500 bonus for every Japanese plane shot down, and all the action they could want.[12]  The AVG was comprised of 99 pilots (59 from the Navy, 7 Marines, 33 from the Army), 200 support crew, and 100 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks.[13]  These volunteers would take their P-40s up against the far superior Japanese’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.  Despite the AVG flying against a numerically and technologically superior enemy, they downed 299 aircraft, and only lost 12 of their own.[14]  Following the entry of the US into the war, the AVG would be reabsorbed into the US Army where Chennault would be made a Major General.[15]  Their 299-12 air combat record has never been broken, and the legendary group became known by their nickname, “The Flying Tigers.”

            Despite being nominally neutral, US military leaders kept a close eye on events.  Strategists scrutinized the Nazi’s use of air power, recognizing the importance of air superiority for ground troops, the success (and dangers) of mass airborne drops, and the value of close air support (CAS).  They also examined the weaknesses of the German Luftwaffe, especially the success of the British radar system in defense, and the German lack of long range bombers.[16]  Meanwhile in the Pacific, the US was holding a stiff diplomatic stance against the Japanese desire for Pacific expansion.  Military officials began expecting an attack may come somewhere in Southeast Asia, with the probable target being the Philippines.[17]  No one expected an attack on Hawaii. 

            On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor after their navy traveled 3,300 miles unnoticed.[18] Planned by Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, a forward thinking admiral who had spent some time at Harvard, the attack destroyed much of the Pacific fleet and launched the US into World War II.  While the attack on Pearl Harbor was underway, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaya.[19]  The attack also brought the US into the European war indirectly, as Adolf Hitler, in support of his ally Japan, declared war on the US on December 11, 1941.[20]

            As the soldiers stationed in the Philippines succumbed to a desperate struggle, the military knew it needed to respond to the Japanese.  Enter Lt Col James Doolittle.  In early 1942, Lt Col Doolittle began training 24 select B-25 crews for “Special Aviation Project 1.”[21]  Doolittle stripped down the B-25s of any excess equipment in order to shorten the required takeoff distance from 1200 feet to 450 feet.[22] Once successful, Doolittle could launch the B-25s from an aircraft carrier.  Having successfully trained his crews to launch bombers from a carrier, Doolittle’s plan was to launch an attack 400 miles from Japan, drop their payload, and continue beyond Japan to landing fields in China.  The plan hit a snag, however, when a small Japanese craft spotted the Americans.  Doolittle, recognizing the need to bloody Japan’s nose, decided to launch anyway.  His crews were nearly double the planned distance from their targets.[23] The attack itself was a success; 16 bombers hit targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama.  The extra distance, however, meant no aircraft reached the Chinese airfields.  Of the 75 flyers, three died in accidents, eight were captured by the Japanese, but the rest returned to the states to continue the war.[24]  For the mission, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to Brigadier General, and would be put in charge of XII Air Force when it was stood up to fight in North Africa.

            The next theater that saw the expanding air force engage would be North Africa.  After Hitler lost the Battle of Britain, he turned his gaze to Russia.  In the winter of 1941, the Nazis suffered devastating losses outside of Moscow, and for the first time in the war the Germans were on the back foot.[25]  Unable to get a foothold on the European continent, the British focused their efforts in North Africa.[26]  When the US entered the war, the US military similarly felt North Africa represented a good target.  Africa was not defended as fiercely as Europe, but an important objective nonetheless. Beginning with Operation TORCH, the invasion of North Africa, the Army Air Force (AAF) began working closely with the Royal Air Force (RAF), and used every aircraft in its inventory to push Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps out of Africa.  The AAF used a vast array of aircraft including close support fighters such as P-38s and P-40s providing CAS to ground troops and battling the Luftwaffe, while concurrently directing a relentless bombing campaign on German shipping, ports and supply depots.[27] 

As German losses began to mount, Rommel attempted to ferry reinforcements from Europe by air in March of 1943.  When the allied air forces got wind of this, they launched a counter attack, destroying 201 enemy aircraft on April 5, 1943, the first day of the engagement.[28]  With the allies establishing a clear dominance over the airspace, Rommel was unable to bring reinforcements from Europe, forcing the Germans to give up North African.  The allies, on the other hand, decided to capitalize on their momentum and invade Sicily, codenamed Operation HUSKY.  The African campaign had provided valuable experience to allied air crews.  Most importantly, the AAF and RAF commands realized they could work together.  This compatibility between the services shaped the larger strategic bombing mission in Europe. 

In North Africa, the US had also conducted its first small scale airborne operation during TORCH.  Airborne warfare was new to World War II.  The Germans had used it to great effect in their Blitzkrieg of Europe, but Hitler decided after the high casualty rate suffered in Crete to use airborne operations sparingly.[29] The allies, on the other hand, decided to conduct its first large scale airborne operation during HUSKY.  On Sicily, the famed 82nd Airborne Division made their first of four combat jumps during the war.  Unfortunately for these aircrews and paratroopers, the operation was beset by poor weather and plagued by friendly anti-aircraft fire.[30]  The event proved so calamitous that Eisenhower questioned if airborne operations were worth using, but the innovative and aggressive fighting of those paratroopers who landed safely proved their value. 

Beyond the airborne assaults, the campaign in Sicily proved to be a great success.  The Twelfth Air Force battered the island, while George Patton, leading the 7th U.S. Army, raced British General Bernard Montgomery around the island to Messina.  By July 19, 1943, the advance had moved so quickly that the AAF shifted its bombing operations to Italy and dropped its first bombs on Rome.[31]  The Italians had never had their heart in the war, and while Mussolini talked a big game, the Italian people were no longer going to support him.  On July 25, 1943, less than a week after the first bombs fell on Rome, Mussolini was ousted from power.[32]  The Italians officially withdrew from the war on September 3, 1943, the same day American forces landed in southern Italy.[33]  Unfortunately for the Allies, the Italian campaign would ground to a halt due to a stubborn defense put up by freshly arrived German troops.  It made Allied planners start casting their eyes on Western Europe.      

While ground troops were tearing across Sicily and preparing to invade Italy, the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force wreaked havoc over the skies of Nazi-occupied Europe.  Beginning in May of 1942, the VIII Air Force began building up strength for a strategic bombing campaign against the Nazis.[34]  Following the successful partnership with the RAF in North Africa, the AAF began flying a treacherous daylight bombing campaign, while the RAF flew night time missions in order to apply sustained pressure on Germany.  The “Mighty Eighth” would go on to be one of the most storied air combat units of all time.  The VIII Air Force, which swelled to over 200,000 people during the war, earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals, but their perilous mission cost them 47,483 casualties (approximately half of all AAF World War II casualties).[35]  Gerald Astor wrote, “In all likelihood, the world will never see another organization like the Mighty Eighth, which at its zenith nearly blotted out the sky with aircraft.”[36]

With the “Mighty Eighth” over the skies of Europe, the allies began preparing for the largest invasion of all time.  On June 6, 1944, Operation OVERLORD commenced, etching itself in the lore of American Military History.  The first action of OVERLORD would be the largest airborne operation ever conducted.  In the early morning darkness, 925 Douglas C-47 Skytrains, with invasion stripes on their wings (an attempt to counter the friendly fire from the Sicilian and Italian campaigns), dropped over 13,000 paratroopers from the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, the British 6th Airborne Division, and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion into France.[37]  After day break, the C-47s returned carrying 500 gliders and an additional 4,000 troops.[38]  For most of the aircrews dropping paratroopers, this was their first combat mission.

As the battle for France continued, the number of Airmen in Europe exploded.  Of the 2,700,000 men in Europe, around 500,000 of them were Airmen, approximately half of which were aircrews.[39]  To put this in perspective, the Army’s combat ground forces numbered approximately 600,000, with around half infantrymen.[40]  Despite the surge in manpower, the dangers in 1944/1945 seemed to increase for the crews of the VIII and IX Air Forces.  Due to the dangers of the daylight flying missions, if a crew survived 25 combat missions, they were sent back to the U.S.  The famous B-17 Memphis Belle from the 91st Bomb Group, for example, was the first to accomplish this task in June 1943.[41]  By 1945, however, that number had risen to 35 missions, and in some cases as high as 70.[42]  Meanwhile the bombers now had to contend with the first generation of jet fighters being flown by the Luftwaffe

For bomber crews, a large portion of the danger was due to the long range involved.  The distance meant that bombers did not have a fighter escort, requiring these flying fortresses to defend themselves from the agile German fighters.  Innovators like Doolittle came up with ideas such as defensive formations, and the B-17s and B-24s were loaded down with machine guns to defend themselves.  By 1943, however, the AAF realized that the bombers just could not compete with the mobility of the opposing fighters, no matter how many machine guns they stuck out the sides.[43]  Instead of trying to make the bombers more defensible, the AAF set to making their fighters more capable. The answer the AAF responded with was the revered P-51 Mustang, a fighter that, with an attached fuel drop tank, could provide long range escort for bomber crews.[44]

While the AAF in Europe developed tactics, fighters, and bombers for the war, another key innovation in air warfare, perhaps even more important than any bomber or fighter, was that of air resupply.  In the somewhat forgotten China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of the war, air resupply grew into an art form.  In CBI, the Japanese had cut off the Burma Road in 1942, the only overland route into China, stopping the allies from being able to resupply the bedraggled Chinese fighters.[45]  The AAF decided to attempt resupply through air power.  Flying the Curtiss C-46 Commandos as opposed to the more well-known (and far more loved by the air crews) C-47s due to the Commando’s higher ceiling and greater cargo capacity, crews would fly over the Himalayan Mountains, 15,000 feet high in some points, and deliver supplies to the battered and cutoff Chinese.[46] Flying the “Hump,” as it came to be known, was extremely treacherous due to massive altitude shifts, terrible weather, and numerous crashes caused by the mountain range’s conditions.  On clear days, pilots could see the wreckage of their comrades’ aircraft splayed out on the mountain slopes.  But the bravery of the men flying the “Hump” kept China in the war, kept pressure on Japan’s western flank, and laid the ground work for modern air mobility operations.

On the other side of Japan, the Pacific campaign’s primary plan had been to island hop.  Army and Marine Corps ground forces would launch amphibious assaults to secure an island large enough to either already have or at least be able to support an airfield.  From there, airfields could be built so air crews could provide air support for the next island campaign.  The aircraft would bomb the next island, and bring in resupply for the fighting men after the landings.  Rinse and repeat.  The problem with the Pacific theatre was the sheer size involved, combine that issue with the determined defense being put up by the Japanese military and the US military was facing a very difficult fight.  Despite years of blood soaked effort, as late as 1944 the Japanese main island had remained relatively safe from bombing. In fact, no bombs had hit Tokyo since Doolittle’s daring raid in 1942.  On the ground, the island hopping strategy’s human cost was starting to pile up.  Every island the Army and Marines took seemed to cost more men than the last.  Eugene Sledge, a Marine on Peleliu described it as such:

 “The Japanese were as dedicated to military excellence as U.S. Marines.  Consequently, on Peleliu the opposing forces were like two scorpions in a bottle.  One was annihilated, the other nearly so.”[47]

Finally in 1944, the U.S. developed a long range bomber that could reach the Japanese mainland, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.  This monster bomber had a range of 3,200 miles and a ceiling of 30,000 feet.[48]  On November 24, 1944, bombers returned to skies above Tokyo.[49]  But the ground war was still hard going.  From 19 February to 26 March, 1945, Marines of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions fought their way across Iwo Jima.  The VII Air Force had tried to soften up the island, but to little affect as the Japanese had dug deeply into the volcanic rock.  The battle would be the first where American casualties outnumbered Japanese. 

While the Marines were in a bitter struggle for Iwo Jima, the AAF worked hard to break the enemies back. With the B-29 now in its arsenal, the ability to strike Japan’s main island resulted in one of the most devastating bombing attacks of World War II.  Curtis Lemay, a veteran of the “Mighty Eighth” in Europe, had taken charge of the XXI Air Force and the Japanese bombing campaign.  On February 25th, a test bombing raid had proven how successful firebombing could be due to much of the Japanese infrastructure being made of wood.[50]  From March 9-10, 279 B-29 bombers dropped firebombs on Tokyo.  The weather that March had been particularly dry, and the winds were blowing especially hard.  The mission, codenamed Operation MEETINGHOUSE, saw over 1,665 tons of napalm munitions dropped on Tokyo, causing temperatures to reach over 1,800 degrees in some places, killing 110,000 Japanese, and leaving over 1 million homeless and stranded.[51]  The “success” of the raid expanded the fire bombing campaign to locations all over Japan.

Despite the devastation, however, the Japanese Army showed no signs of wavering.  The Battle of Okinawa (April 1 – June 22, 1945) proved to be even more devastating than Iwo Jima in terms of bloodshed.  For each step the US took closer to Japan, the casualty skyrocketed. With Victory in Europe, the US government began to worry about sustaining public support for a war they felt should be over.  To add to these troubles, FDR had died on April 12, 1945, putting Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office.  Truman faced the issues of mounting casualties, the reality that the Battle of Iwo Jima had largely been pointless as the airfields were not being used, and some military planners began advising him that an invasion of Japan could cost 1 million lives.[52]  It was in this environment that Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs.

Earlier in 1945, after learning about the atomic bomb, Truman had brought together a group of military and scientific leaders to debate how to demonstrate the weapons capabilities.  Some suggested that the bomb could be dropped in a deserted area, showing the Japanese the force of their new weapon without inflicting casualties.[53]  By that point in the war, however, the bad blood between the two nations ran too deep.  The Japanese continued to fight stubbornly, and at this point in the war regularly used banzai charges and kamikaze pilots, indicating to the Americans that a simple show of force would not be enough to break the will of such a determined enemy.  From a logistical point of view, the US only had two bombs.  If a show of force was not enough to force a Japanese surrender, they had wasted half of their atomic arsenal.

With Okinawa secured, the next step was Japan.  Would Truman invade or drop the bomb to try and avoid a Japanese invasion?  He decided to drop the bomb.  On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. local time, the B-29 Enola Gay, flown by AAF Colonel Paul Tibbets, released the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” over Hiroshima.  The blast that followed was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT.[54]  Roughly 80,000 people died instantly.  Tibbets reported that the mushroom cloud following the blast reached 45,000 feet into the air, roughly three miles above the Enola Gay’s altitude.[55]  Three days later, on August 9, AAF Major Charles Sweeney flying the B-29 Bockscar dropped the second bomb, “Fat Man,” over Nagasaki.[56]  On August 15, the Japanese government agreed to surrender, and on September 2, 1945, the formal surrender was singed aboard the USS Missouri.[57]

As the war ended, the Army Air Forces had truly come into its own.  It had grown from 26,000 men before the war to almost one hundred times that number, and represented roughly a third of the US Army.  The air power of the United States had proven its absolute necessity in combat.  Long range strategic bombing, aerial dog fights, and close air support for ground troops had all proven vital to securing victory.  From World War II on, air superiority has remained a fundamental mission for US forces engaged in combat.  Beyond direct combat operations, air mobility had proven to be just as vital.  Whether it was dropping paratroopers into Normandy, flying supplies over the “Hump” into China, or bringing supplies to troops on isolated islands in the Pacific, airborne resupply became a key mission for the air forces.  With such a massive leap in a small period of time, the military began realizing that air warfare required a new special focus.  Two years after World War II ended, the United States Air Force would be established as a separate branch of service that has become as vital to American military doctrine as the British Navy has been for the United Kingdom.  Happy Birthday Air Force.


8th Air Force. n.d. Eighth Air Force History.

Air Force Historical Research Agency. n.d. "The Birth of the United States Air Force." Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Air Force Historical Support Division. n.d. 1942-Doolittle's Raid.

Ambrose, Stephen E. 1997. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Bendersky, Joseph W. 2014. A Concise History of Nazi Germany. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Brown, Archie. 2009. The Rise and Fall of Communism. New York: Harper Collins.

Churchill, Winston. 1959. Memoirs of the Second World War: Abridged. Boston: Houghton Mifflin .

Doubek, James. n.d. "The Flying Tigers: How a group of Americans ended up fighting for China in World War II." NPR.

Glines, Carroll V. 1991. "Flying the Hump." Air Force Magazine.

Keene, Jennifer D. 2011. World War I: The American Soldier Experience. Santa Barbara : Bison Books.

Library of Congress. n.d. Mobilzed Strength and Casualty Losses.

National Museum of the U.S. Navy. n.d. Fat Man - Nagasaki .

National Museum of the United States Air Force. n.d. Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle.

—. n.d. Doolittle Raid.

—. n.d. Italy Surrenders.

—. n.d. North Africa.

Shirer, William L. 1959. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sledge, E. B. 2011. With the Old Breed. London: Ebury Press.

The National World War II Museum. n.d. Hellfire on Earth: Operation MEETINGHOUSE.

—. n.d. The End of World War II 1945.

—. n.d. The Most Fearsome Sight: The Atomic Bomb of Hiroshima.

Tuchman, Barbara W. 1970. Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945. New York: Random House .

U.S. Airborne & Special Operations Museum. n.d. Airborne Operations in Sicily: Operation Husky.

US Army Center for Military History. n.d. D-Day: June 6, 1944.


[1] (Library of Congress n.d.)

[2] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 201.

[3] (Shirer 1959) pg. 597.

[4] (Shirer 1959) pg. 608.

[5] (Brown 2009) pg. 91.

[6] (Bendersky 2014) pg. 167-168.

[7] (Keene 2011) pg. 10-11.

[8] (Air Force Historical Research Agency n.d.)

[9] (Air Force Historical Research Agency n.d.)

[10] (Air Force Historical Research Agency n.d.)

[11] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 263.

[12] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 267.

[13] (Doubek n.d.)

[14] (Doubek n.d.)

[15] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 301.

[16] (Churchill 1959) pg. 362.

[17] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 279

[18] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 279.

[19] (Tuchman 1970) pg. 279.

[20] (Shirer 1959) pg. 896-897.

[21] (National Museum of the United States Air Force n.d.)

[22] (Air Force Historical Support Division n.d.)

[23] (Air Force Historical Support Division n.d.)

[24] (Air Force Historical Support Division n.d.)

[25] (Shirer 1959) pg. 864.

[26] (Churchill 1959) pg. 434.

[27] (National Museum of the United States Air Force n.d.)

[28] (National Museum of the United States Air Force n.d.)

[29] (Shirer 1959) pg. 826.

[30] (U.S. Airborne & Special Operations Museum n.d.)

[31] (National Museum of the United States Air Force n.d.)

[32] (Shirer 1959) pg. 997.

[33] (Shirer 1959) pg. 1000.

[34] (8th Air Force n.d.)

[35] (8th Air Force n.d.)

[36] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 291.  The quote is from Astor’s book The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It.

[37] (US Army Center for Military History n.d.)

[38] (US Army Center for Military History n.d.)

[39] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 290.

[40] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 290.

[41] (National Museum of the United States Air Force n.d.)

[42] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 293.

[43] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 293.

[44] (Ambrose 1997) pg. 293.

[45] (Glines 1991)

[46] (Glines 1991)

[47] (Sledge 2011) pg. 156.

[48] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[49] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[50] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[51] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[52] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[53] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[54] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[55] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)

[56] (National Museum of the U.S. Navy n.d.)

[57] (The National World War II Museum n.d.)